January 5, 2005

On the Occasion of Your Catastrophe

It’s a small side story amid the big and horrible details of the Asian tsunami, but I have read with some interest attempts by various experts to assess the social impact of the disaster in the nations affected and to place the catastrophe in global and historical perspective.

Mostly what strikes me is how little an event like this perturbs the established discursive formulations of expertise, how easily it can be plugged into a prepackaged argument or perspective, even including the criticisms of the American government's slow response, which I think are largely fair.

So, for example, there have been social scientists, some experts in the affected nations, others with more global portfolios, predicting that if the various governments in the area did not respond with effective disaster assistance, they could face serious political consequences from angry citizens further down the road. Certainly there are examples of this happening elsewhere, and it's not a wildly incorrect assessment. There’s nothing wrong with a critique of the Indonesian government’s historic corruption, for example, and it’s absolutely correct to argue on behalf of more effective, free and responsive government wherever and whenever the circumstances. However, it smacks of canned or opportunistic use of a big news story to just roll out these kinds of statements at this point.

There’s a sort of brutal specificity missing from a lot of the expert assessments circulating in the American media. For example, how much more alienated can the citizens of Banda Aceh and its surrounding province get from the Indonesian state, given that the province has been the center of a long-term separatist conflict? Perhaps it’s an opportunity for the Indonesian government to put that conflict to rest by delivering relief effectively, sure, but the specifics of the situation are such that I wouldn’t care to predict any political outcomes from the effectiveness of aid in that particular place. Nor, as at least one article accurately observed, is there likely to be any major economic impact to almost any of the nations involved, just to the communities that have been destroyed. The honest fact is that the coastal areas hit are relatively peripheral to the national economies they sit within, or that their economies are classic enclave economies, as in the tourist areas of Thailand that were affected. For those who work and live within the tsunami's reach, the impact is enormous. For those who live well beyond it, politically or economically, it's not terribly relevant. If it's an important moment in those nations, or in the history of global society, it has to be important for other reasons.

Many of the historians and environmental scientists trying to look at the big picture don’t fare much better, in my view. There have been quite a few arguments floated that this catastrophe demonstrates how vulnerable to natural disaster modern cities and communities have become because of the places contemporary humans tend to build in and because of the building materials they tend to use. This is a fair comment when you’re talking about hurricanes hitting the coasts of the southeastern United States. It’s a reasonable comment when you’re talking about the shoddy construction standards for modern buildings in some earthquake-prone parts of the world, though if we’re talking about a place like Bam in Iran, that’s a city which was hard-hit in a 2003 earthquake partly because its buildings were as much premodern as modern in design and materials.

In the big picture, however, this whole presentation looks again more like experts using a specific event in the news, any event, to try and bolster established arguments for their own favored policies, in this case policies on zoning, construction and planning, policies that I think they favor for reasons which have relatively little to do with prudent planning for natural disasters.

To say that modern human societies are more vulnerable to catastrophic disaster is empirically wrong. Across the longue duree of the last three millennia of human experience, for example, it was much more common for entire cities to be completely wiped out by fire than it is today. Humans in the past built in floodplains just as much as they do now, perhaps more so. They lived in earthquake-prone areas, and built large and fragile cities in them. They engaged in forms of agriculture and construction with very high environmental risks. Their elites constructed monumental sites and cities that required massive amounts of menial human labor and concomitant death and suffering, and sometimes saw those same monuments abandoned or destroyed when those who were enslaved to build them rebelled. Human history is full of catastrophic destruction, and the finality of catastrophe was far greater in the past than in the present. Modern states, even inefficient ones, possess a host of practical tools for the mitigation of catastrophe that no premodern society, even the wealthiest, could deploy. There were no international relief agencies or concerned journalists or charitable donations to come to the rescue in the vast majority of past disasters. Just the dead and the living.

An argument that surfaces at this point to counsels much more stringent controls on construction and habitation so as to minimize vulnerability to disaster is especially inappropriate in response to this particular catastrophe. Even hurricanes might arguably be affected by global warming, and our building patterns are more extensively vulnerable to them, but earthquakes and tsunami are one class of catastrophe with no relationship to human alteration of the environment. Coastal communities of fishers and merchants in premodern societies around the Indian Ocean would have been just as devastatingly affected by this tsumami (and were affected by several past ones that we know about). There's one important exception, and that’s tourism. Beach tourism is a distinctively modern phenomenon—but even the advocates of far tighter controls on human construction and living patterns aren’t calling for an end to all leisure travel to locations which might have particular vulnerability to catastrophe.

The difference in many cases is not that modern human societies are more vulnerable to catastrophic destruction or damage, but simply that the numbers of people involved in contemporary disasters are much higher. This tsunami might have killed 25,000 people rather than 150,000 if it had happened in 1650. That has nothing to do with where or how we live, simply that there are many more of us living and so potentially dying when disaster strikes.

That we feel those numbers so devastatingly has to do with the way that modern states constantly and persistently enumerate their populations—so that the tally of the dead circles like lightning around the globe, to be compared with all the other unimaginably large social quantities that we try to keep in our heads. Premodern societies did not have the mechanisms or the conceptual desire to count people in the same way, and did not understand catastrophe in the numerical terms that we are so accustomed to in the 21st Century.

We feel those numbers also because we live at the other end of the revolutionary impact of liberalism, the inheritors of a belief in the individual meaning and worth of every human life. We are everywhere, even in authoritarian states, enveloped by legal and social institutions which give individual lives at least notionally a structured importance and gravity. Death and suffering have been part of human experience from its beginning to the present day, but the human meanings and felt importance of death in the past were different, sometimes strikingly so. I do not think that many premodern societies conceptualized catastrophe the way that we do, even though they were just as affected by it as we are, often more so. The devastatingly painful stories of individual loss that serve as our collective route into this disaster, that allow us to relate its enormity to our everyday lives, are distinctively modern, a mark of our age. That makes us feel as if catastrophe affects us more, worse, and in a way it does. Not because we build more, or build in the wrong places, or have a flawed relationship to our environment. It affects us more in the 21st Century because of a change in meaning, in sentiment, in consciousness, in the infrastructure of human subjectivity.